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100 Years Is Enough: Time to Make the Fed a Public Utility

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Posted on Dec 22, 2013
epicharmus (CC BY 2.0)

By Ellen Brown, Web of Debt

(Page 2)

This more benign view was taken by Beardsley Ruml, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, in a presentation before the American Bar Association in 1945. He said the government was now at liberty to spend as needed to meet its budget, drawing on credit issued by its own central bank. It could do this until price inflation indicated a weakened purchasing power of the currency. Then, and only then, would the government need to levy taxes—not to fund the budget but to counteract inflation by contracting the money supply. The principal purpose of taxes, said Ruml, was “the maintenance of a dollar which has stable purchasing power over the years. Sometimes this purpose is stated as ‘the avoidance of inflation.’”

It was a remarkable realization. The government could be funded without taxes, by drawing on credit from its own central bank. Since there was no longer a need for gold to cover the loan, the central bank would not have to borrow. It could just create the money on its books. Only when prices rose across the board, signaling an excess of money in the money supply, would the government need to tax—not to fund the government but simply to keep supply (goods and services) in balance with demand (money).

Ruml’s vision is echoed today in the school of economic thought called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). But after Roosevelt’s demise, it was not pursued. The U.S. government continued to fund itself with taxes; and when it failed to recover enough to pay its bills, it continued to borrow, putting itself in debt.

The Fed Agrees to Return the Interest

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For its first half century, the Federal Reserve continued to pocket the interest on the money it issued and lent to the government. But in the 1960s, Wright Patman, Chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, pushed to have the Fed nationalized. To avoid that result, the Fed quietly agreed to rebate its profits to the U.S. Treasury.

In The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon, published in 1973, Congressman Jerry Voorhis wrote of this concession:

It was done, quite obviously, as acknowledgment that the Federal Reserve Banks were acting on the one hand as a national bank of issue, creating the nation’s money, but on the other hand charging the nation interest on its own credit—which no true national bank of issue could conceivably, or with any show of justice, dare to do.

Rebating the interest to the Treasury was clearly a step in the right direction. But the central bank funded very little of the federal debt. Commercial banks held a large chunk of it; and as Voorhis observed, “[w]here the commercial banks are concerned, there is no such repayment of the people’s money.” Commercial banks did not rebate the interest they collected to the government, said Voorhis, although they also “‘buy’ the bonds with newly created demand deposit entries on their books—nothing more.”

Today the proportion of the federal debt held by the Federal Reserve has shot up, due to repeated rounds of “quantitative easing.” But the majority of the debt is still funded privately at interest, and most of the dollars funding it originated as “bank credit” created on the books of private banks.

Time for a New Populist Movement?

The Treasury’s website reports the amount of interest paid on the national debt each year, going back 26 years. At the end of 2013, the total for the previous 26 years came to about $9 trillion on a federal debt of $17.25 trillion. If the government had been borrowing from its own central bank interest-free during that period, the debt would have been reduced by more than half. And that was just the interest for 26 years. The federal debt has been accumulating ever since 1835, when Andrew Jackson paid it off and vetoed the Second U.S. Bank’s renewal; and all that time it has been accruing interest. If the government had been borrowing from its central bank all along, it might have had no federal debt at all today.

In 1977, Congress gave the Fed a dual mandate, not only to maintain the stability of the currency but to promote full employment.  The Fed got the mandate but not the tools, as discussed in my earlier article here. 

It may be time for a new populist movement, one that demands that the power to issue money be returned to the government and the people it represents; and that the Federal Reserve be made a public utility, owned by the people and serving them. The firehose of cheap credit lavished on Wall Street needs to be re-directed to Main Street.

Ellen Brown is an attorney, president of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including the bestselling Web of Debt. In The Public Bank Solution, her latest book, she explores successful public banking models historically and globally. Her blog articles are at EllenBrown.com. She is currently running for California State Treasurer on the Green Party ticket.


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